Thanks to a talented roster featuring last season’s leading scorer, Dustin Jeffrey
, two quality netminders in John Curry and Brad Thiessen
, and an experienced, diverse defensive corps, there were plenty of high expectations surrounding the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins as they began the 2010-11 campaign.
During the season’s opening month, the Penguins not only exceeded those expectations, they blew them away by jumping out to a perfect 8-0 start to leap right to the top of the American Hockey League standings.
“It was an awesome October from the start all the way through,” said second-year forward Joe Vitale
, the team’s leading goal scorer with five. “I think the whole team is very excited with the group that we have. There are a lot of good kids from different ages – rookies and new veterans who are adding a lot to the team. It’s been a great month, but we know there is a lot of improving still to be done and we hope to get there as soon as possible.”
It’s tough to imagine the Penguins finding a way to be better than they were during October, as the team outscored its opponents by a 27-15 count. WBS’ 15 goals allowed is five less than the next lowest team (Albany, 20).
Leading the way has been the outstanding goaltending duo of John Curry (4-0; 1.72 GAA; .940 SVP) and Brad Thiessen
(4-0; 1.96 GAA; .930 SVP). In their second year manning the crease together, both players have taken their game to another level, combining to post an 8-0 record, 1.84 goals-against average and .935 save percentage while earning Reebok/AHL Goaltenders of the Month honors.
“To get the award feels great because I feel like I did have a good start to the year, and Brad did as well,” Curry said. “It’s a tribute to how well our team has played thus far. We are both honored and excited to receive this award.”
“Brad and John have been at the very top of their games,” Vitale said. “There have been points in some of the games where we should be down 2-0 because we are being outplayed, but then you look at the scoreboard and it’s 0-0. They have done everything that a goalie has to and kept us in games.”
In addition to top-notch goaltending, the Penguins have also been able to stay in games – and eventually win them – because their special teams units have been so clutch, particularly the penalty killers. Through eight games, the Penguins were shorthanded a total of 43 times. WBS killed off 40 of those opposition power-play chances for a league-best success rate of 93 percent.
“The penalty kill has been great this year,” said Vitale, whose two shorthanded goals are tied for the AHL lead. “(Assistant Coach Alain) Nasreddine has been coming up with different game plans based upon the opponents we have been playing. I think our outlook changes every game as we adjust to the other team’s power play. Coach has been doing a great job of preparing us for games so hopefully we can keep that going.”
Offensively, it has been a team effort leading the way as 11 different forwards have found the back of the net, led by Vitale (5), Jeffrey (3) and Tim Wallace (3). Every night it has been somebody different stepping to the forefront and picking up the offensive slack, something Curry believes has allowed the team to win so many close contests.
“We have a lot of scoring depth,” Curry said. “We are winning games in so many different ways. It seems like we have an all-around group that can step up to whatever challenge or opponent we face. We are using our depth to our advantage and having many different players step up and chip in to help us win games.”
The Penguins’ early-season success has also been fueled by great coaching by first-year WBS head coach John Hynes, who was promoted over the summer after spending last season as the assistant to Todd Reirden.
“The coaching staff has been really unbelievable thus far,” Curry said. “Our practices, more than anything else, have been very disciplined and very organized. They have been very clear and concise as to what their message is and how they want us to play. That makes it easy for us as players to respond to them. We have all been very impressed and driven to meet their expectations.”
“One thing you notice about Coach is the practices we go through throughout the week to prepare ourselves for the games,” Vitale added. “I don’t think I’ve ever practiced this hard in my life. He is big on detail and the right way to do things. If we don’t do it the right way, we stop and do it until we do it the right way. I think the guys are responding well to that.”